Credibility is vital in a crisis

by Angela Hughes, Director

It’s challenging to get people to respond to social marketing messages that are for their own personal good and that of society. Think about smoking cessation, alcohol and drug misuse, cervical screening, healthy eating, speeding.

The Coronavirus pandemic is an acute situation and brings a more urgent message to people, but ultimately it is similarly aimed at urging people to act differently for the good of individuals and society.

We can see in the current crisis the challenges of persuading people to change their behaviour. Some still aren’t following the social distancing rules.

At the weekend, we saw a high-profile example with, unbelievably, Scotland’s chief medical officer (CMO), Dr Catherine Calderwood. As the story unfolded, it transpired it was the second non-essential trip she had made to her holiday home in two weeks.

Dr Calderwood has been a high-profile voice in the Scottish Government’s response to Coronavirus. She is a highly qualified and experienced medical professional, bringing a wealth of expert knowledge and authenticity to her role as a frontline spokesperson, in addition to advice and briefings for Scottish ministers.

Dr Calderwood demonstrated a terrible lack of judgement and perhaps also a lack of awareness of the prominence of her profile. She apologised unreservedly, but her resignation was inevitable.

Credibility is vital in a crisis. Spokespeople need to claim the audience’s attention, be authentic, be trustworthy. When trust is lost, it is very difficult to regain.

In the current environment, it’s essential that those leading the response practice what they preach. These are strange and unprecedented times; everyone is being asked to behave in ways that go against basic human nature — don’t socialise, don’t visit family, stay indoors. When a professional at the very heart of the country’s response doesn’t follow the guidance, it risks the veracity of the message.

More generally, there is a lesson for all business leaders that how you act in a crisis can have long-lasting repercussions for you and your organisation.

For the last 24 hours, the CMO’s misstep has been the focus of the story in Scotland, detracting from crucial public health information.

When you become the story in a crisis, it’s time to step aside.